Israeli Haredim Hold Both Social Justice, IDF Hostage

Minister Atias broke all records for cynicism when he torpedoed an agreement to evacuate five IDF bases, thus blocking the launch of a huge project to build some 40,000 apartments on the land to be vacated.

If there's one thing that social protest leader Daphni Leef regrets saying, it's calling the Shas leader, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, "a real man" after she met with him last year. During the meeting Yishai told her all kinds of stories about his full support for everything the protesters were demanding, from affordable housing to half-priced cottage cheese.

Leef fell into his trap. She didn't understand that although he indeed supports all those wonderful things, there's a small catch: He only wants them for Shas voters. The Rothschild tent protesters are not exactly his cup of tea.

Now Leef can add Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias to the list. Atias very much wants cheap housing for young couples, but also on one small condition: that the young couples who get it be primarily Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ).

Last Thursday Atias broke all records for cynicism when he torpedoed an agreement to evacuate five Israel Defense Forces bases in the center of the country, and thus blocked the launch of a huge project to build some 40,000 apartments on the land to be vacated. We're talking about land in very high-demand areas - Tel Hashomer, Tzrifin, Sirkin near Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan's military adjutancy compound and central Givatayim.

Such a large number of new apartments would push prices down and would also enable the construction of subsidized, affordable apartments, but Atias has his own considerations. Blocking the agreement also prevented the immediate transfer of half a billion shekels to the defense budget on account of the land to be vacated, during one of the IDF's toughest years in terms of funding, a year in which the army has been delaying training exercises for lack of funds.

Atias' torpedoing the agreement is part of a struggle the housing minister is waging to have most of the affordable apartments (about 5,000 all told ) earmarked for the Haredi community. Atias did this by unilaterally setting the criteria for distributing the apartments. He decided that the primary criterion for participating in tenders for the cost-price "mehir lemishtaken" apartments, for which the government discounts the land by 50 percent, will be years of marriage.

Atias chose this criterion because it gives the Haredi couples a significant advantage over secular couples; they marry at age 18-19 and thus are married for several years at an age when most secular young adults still aren't even thinking of getting married.

He refused to include in the eligibility formula the criterion "maximizing earning power" because this is a criterion that works against the Haredim, large numbers of whom do not work and live on government allowances, while secular couples work and pay taxes, which in turn help fund the government allowances for Haredim. The criterion of maximizing earning power is the most just criterion there is. It's the epitome of "social justice" because it creates a positive correlation between contributing to the state and receiving from it. But according to Atias' justice, the less you give, the more you get.

This injustice got the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz; but now that they understand that the public protests are being revived and plan to make housing a central issue, they would prefer to see maximizing earning power restored as an eligibility criterion for subsidized housing.

The issue blew up last week when the Finance Ministry's accountant general, Michal Abadi-Boiangiu, insisted that the handling of the housing tenders be transparent and clear. At issue are discounts in land prices that will reach hundreds of millions of shekels, she said, and as such they cannot be passed matter-of-factly under a general budget heading. The government must go to the Knesset Finance Committee and ask for an orderly budget transfer to a special budget clause, she said.

Atias objected and thus torpedoed the whole process. He isn't interested in any process that would return the eligibility criteria to the public agenda, because if the debate is revived, the argument about the "maximizing earning power" criterion will resume, and the public might realize how it's been taken for a ride.

Atias wants hundred of millions in government subsidies to be transferred quietly to his Haredi voters, away from the spotlights. And because he feels his position is so strong in the Netanyahu government despite the entrance of Kadima, he isn't even afraid of going head-to-head with the IDF, which for now isn't getting that half-billion shekels it so badly needs.

Thus even the IDF is being held hostage by Haredi needs, and all those apartments can just wait.